Are We Ready for a Real-Life War of the Worlds?

Bailey Cunningham

By Bailey Cunningham, NSS Legal Fellow

In 1897, H.G. Wells envisioned a Martian invasion. Today we know there is no need to panic, but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent about planetary defense. The threat posed by Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) is very real. NEOs are asteroids and comets that come within 28 million miles of Earth’s path around the sun. Even small space objects can cause monumental damage here on Earth, and the collision of two worlds, the Earth and a small asteroid, is not out of the realm of possibility. Fortunately, technological advances have allowed us to track many NEOs and envision appropriate responses. In order to assure a successful and efficient planetary defense program, NASA must expand funding for such efforts to at least 1% of its budget.

Asteroid impacts on Earth are continuous and inevitable. While catastrophic impacts from NEOs are infrequent, the possibility of a global disaster remains. In 2013, an undetected meteor struck Russia. The Chelyabinsk meteor hurled towards Earth at a speed of 60,000 kilometers per hour and was approximately 20 meters in diameter. The impact damaged over 7,000 buildings and injured 1,500 people. The Chelyabinsk meteor was from a relatively small asteroid; one can only imagine the type of damage that could be inflicted by a larger object. According to NASA, there were 77 detected close approaches in 2019 alone, including 24 objects larger than 20 meters and up to two that were larger than 100 meters.

NASA formally established the Center for NEO Studies in 1998 in response to a Congressional directive to discover 90% of one-kilometer sized NEOs within a decade. In 2005, Congress directed NASA to find and track at least 90% of all NEOs 140 meters or larger by 2020. NASA has utilized both ground-based and space-based telescopes in its NEO detection efforts. Since 2013, the NEO Wide-field Infrared Explorer (NEOWISE) has identified near Earth asteroids and comets. However, NEOWISE is a repurposed astrophysics spacecraft and was not intended to be a dedicated asteroid survey telescope. There have been numerous challenges with both ground-based and space-based telescopes, in addition to minimal financial support for the NEO Observation Program. Although NASA met the first Congressional mandate in 2010, less than half of the estimated 25,000 NEOs larger than 140 meters in size have been found as of 2020.

While the detection of these objects is necessary, an effective response is also needed. Unlike Earth’s typical natural disasters, humanity possesses the technology to locate hazardous asteroids and, in theory though not yet in practice, prevent a catastrophic and deadly event. NASA is studying multiple methods to deflect asteroids that approach Earth. One of the available methods of defense is known as the kinetic impactor technique. This method will be tested by the Double-Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) mission, which is set to launch in July of 2021 on a SpaceX Falcon 9. The goal of the mission is to send the DART spacecraft into a football-stadium sized asteroid at over 25,000 kilometers per hour in order to see how the orbit of the asteroid is shifted by the impact. The DART mission will be a historic step forward on the path to protecting Earth from hazardous impacts.

Funding for planetary defense has risen in recent years but remains modest compared to the rest of NASA’s budget. NASA’s allocation for planetary defense in 2018 and 2019 was as much as in the preceding decade combined. In NASA’s budget request for the 2021 fiscal year, planetary defense is set to receive $150 million, significantly less than the $196 million NSS believes is needed to fund both DART and NEOSM, a new, more powerful infrared asteroid detector. While designated funding has come a long way since the early 2000s, NASA still spends just 0.7% of its budget on planetary defense. We can and must do better. There are significant ramifications for civilization as we know it if the United States and its international partners fail to properly fund planetary defense efforts. NASA must continue to support planetary defense and increase funding to reach at least 1% of the overall NASA budget. NEOs may not be vicious Martian fighting machines, but they can still cause considerable destruction. It would be inexcusable to let that happen when we have the potential means to prevent it.

To learn more about planetary defense, please see the NSS position paper “Protecting Earth from Cosmic Impacts” and the NSS planetary defense web page.


About NSS Legal Fellow Bailey Cunningham

Bailey Cunningham is a third-year law student at Florida State University. Prior to law school, Bailey attended the University of South Florida for her undergraduate degree, where she majored in Political Science and minored in both Astronomy and Intelligence Studies. At FSU Law, Bailey is an Executive Editor for Business Review, and the Vice President of Space for the Aviation and Space Law Society. Outside of school, Bailey volunteers with For All Moonkind and serves as the Space Law Project Manager. Through this organization, Bailey has presented at the United Nations Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space on the importance of preservation and sustainable practices in returning to the Moon. Bailey also serves as the Vice-Chair for the NSS International Committee, and has represented NSS at a multi-stakeholder hearing hosted by UN-Women on the empowerment of women and girls.


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